At 93, there isn’t much comedy legend Carl Reiner hasn’t done. Over a rich career he’s tried his hand at stand-up comedy, acting, directing, producing, writing, and even singing. He is best known as the straight man to his longtime friend Mel Brooks in 2000 Year Old Man, for his role on Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows, and for The Dick Van Dyke Show, which he also created and wrote. He directed the Steve Martin classic The Jerk and wrote and directed The Man With Two Brains. He’s won nine Emmy Awards and one Grammy.
His latest foray into the world of words is an interactive children’s book that’s laced with humor that adults are certain to appreciate too. The Secret Treasure Of Tahka Paka follows a family—one that’s not-so-subtly inspired by Reiner’s own, minus the flaming red hair—on their visit to a mysterious tropical island where, as the title suggests, there’s a treasure to be found.
We caught up with Reiner at his home, where he’s lived with his wife for most of his life. A home where there’s a special chair reserved for his best friend Mel, who joins him on most nights. A home that pays tribute to Mark Twain and Shakespeare, two strong influences in his work. We discussed The Secret Treasure Of Tahka Paka, making people laugh, meeting Brooks, and how he never stops working.
The A.V. Club: Tell me about The Secret Treasure Of Tahka Paka.
Carl Reiner: Well, that’s one of the favorite things I’ve ever written. I’m not kidding. I’ve written a lot of things but this tickles me so much. What’s interesting about this is that when you talk about a secret treasure, everybody thinks of a secret treasure as this one thing, but the secret treasure [in this book] is very unusual. When you realize what it is you’ll say, “My God.” And especially with today’s problems, it is the greatest secret treasure ever. I won’t tell you what it is—or should I?
AVC: You’ve written children’s books before. How did you get into writing them?
CR: The first children’s book I wrote was an illustrated book. I had a young grandchild that I used to tell stories to and he said to me once, “Tell me a scary story, Grandpa, but not too scary.” And somebody called me and said, “Do you have a children’s story?” I never wrote a children’s story, but that line popped into my head and I wrote a book called Tell Me A Scary Story…But Not Too Scary!
I told it exactly as if a child [had asked] the grandpa to tell it, but I warned the children. I’d say, “The next page has a very scary monster in it. If you’re frightened, tell your mommy to stop reading or if you want me to continue, tell her to continue.” They always say continue.
Well, it became a great kindergarten book. Children [would] always say, “More, more. Turn the page, turn the page.” And it became a bestseller. I wrote another one after that—Tell Me Another Scary Story—and then Tell Me A Silly Story. And so I realized that I had the ability to write children’s books.
AVC: Tell me about the Zapper.
CR: There is another thing about this book I never expected—I don’t know anything about the mechanics of it—but there’s a little icon. If you focus your iPad on the icon, the cover comes to life. It comes at you and you see myself talking about the book.
There are icons in the book where if you touch that icon, there’s a girl falling into a deep chasm—she floats on a chasm. If you touch that icon, you’ll float down with her. You can feel yourself floating. Extraordinary. I never expected that to be added to the book but I’m happy there are icons.
AVC: You must have seen a lot of changes in technology throughout the years.
CR: Have I ever! You know, I had a father who is an inventor of sorts. That clock over there, the battery clock is one of his inventions. When we were very, very young, radio had just come out and he built the first radio that we had in the house himself. We didn’t have electric plugs then so he had to go to the garage and get a storage battery to plug the radio into. There wasn’t much on then… and lots of static. So I’ve watched radio develop into a fine way of communicating. Then television came and that was unheard of. I mean, sending pictures through the air? Couldn’t believe it! And today it’s a given. So many more things that I don’t understand, you name them. I do use the computer now to go on YouTube, Google, and tweet.
CR: I love tweeting. I tweet every day. I stay in contact, I tell them what I’m doing. I’ve posted pictures of my books on there and they buy the books. It’s a very good way to communicate with people, but I can’t go to bed without tweeting something. I have to tweet something.
AVC: What is it that you like about Twitter?
CR: You’re contacting people. I’m an entertainer and I entertain people and they entertain me back by asking questions. And some of them I answer.
AVC: You seem to think a lot about how you craft your tweets. When Twitter first started up, people would insist on tweeting about what they had for lunch, but it is also a medium that could be used in a way that’s very poignant and funny.
CR: Yeah, I’ll tweet about eating too, but I try to inject some humor into it.
AVC: You’ve got three autobiographies and lots of photographs in your books. It almost feels part photo albums, part records of your life in stories, which you happen to be sharing with the world.
CR: Well, you know, what happens is that when I walked around the block, memories popped into my head—like when I wrote the first book, I Remember Me. I just remembered things and they just kept popping like popcorn. When I finished [the first book], I said, “Oh, I had a couple other stories.” And then [came] the second one, I Just Remembered.
And this latest one, What I Forgot To Remember—I still had more. As a matter of fact, I started writing another one because I started remembering more and Mel Brooks gave me another title: I Can’t Stop Remembering. But I put that aside to write this Dick Van Dyke book [I’m working on now] because that’s exciting for me.
AVC: If I were to name my own book in this fashion, it would be called I Always Forget.
CR: You could say, What I Almost Forgot.
AVC: When you’re thinking of tweets and making things funny, how do you go about it?
CR: I’ve been in the comedy business for so long and Mel Brooks comes here and sits every night. He and I do these albums—we did five albums for the 2000 Year Old Man—and those were all ad-libbed when we did those. So, we think funny. I mean, it started very early in my life. I was able to tell jokes I heard on the radio and embellish them. And then when I found Mel, I became his straight man. Sometimes I had to turn away from the mic because I didn’t want my laughter to intrude in the recording.
AVC: It’s good that you have someone that makes you laugh.
CR: Oh my God, he’s the funniest human being ever.
AVC: This has been a lasting friendship; he even gets his own chair in your house.
CR: Oh yes. I met him in 1950 so, it’s 65 years. I’ve known him for 65 years.
AVC: And you knew that you’re meant to be friends right away?
CR: Yes, the first day I’ve met him.
He was a friend of Sid Caesar’s. He used to give Sid jokes, a few dollars’ worth. I walked into the room that day and didn’t know who he was. He jumps up and he’s doing a Jewish pirate and I remember it like it was today. He says, “You know how hard it is to set sail today, what they’re charging for sail cloth, $3.40 a yard. I can’t afford to pillage anymore.” That was the first thing I heard him say and I laughed hysterically. He went off for 10 minutes.
AVC: You’ve done so many different things. You performed, did stand-up, wrote for TV, books, etc. What is it that makes you want to do it all?
CR: Well, writing is the basis of it all because creating something that didn’t even exist before is like taking an empty canvass. It is a wonderful thing to make something out of nothing. You’ve got an empty page, you’ve got an idea, and then you start typing and that is the most thrilling thing of all. And then if it becomes a movie or something else that’s a plus, but the original writing of it is what’s very exciting.
AVC: So, you see it as an extension of…
CR: Oh yes, it’s an extension of my performing. I used to perform and make people laugh. When I found out I could write I was shocked! I didn’t know I could write.
AVC: How did you make that discovery?
CR: That was really funny. When we moved to New Rochelle, my wife and I had a basement where I kept my old typewriter. I was a Teletype operator in the army, so that’s where I learned to type. One day, I went downstairs to see if I could still type—I hadn’t done it for four or five years after the war. So I typed out a page and I showed it to my wife and she said, “Where did you get this?” I said I wrote it. “You wrote this?” It was something very funny. I went and wrote another page, another couple of pages, and by the time I was finished I had 13 little short stories, humorous short stories. I gave them to a friend of mine, a textile manufacturer by the name of Julian Rochelle, and he gave it to a friend of his to read.
At a party I met his friend and he said, “I love your stories, do you want to have lunch with me?” and I said to Julian, “Do I have to have lunch with this guy?” He said, “Yeah, why wouldn’t you?” He told me he was in pocket books and [since] my friend was a textile manufacturer, I figured he bought material for his pocket books for the linings. And Julian said, “No, no, it’s not those [kinds of] pocket books, it’s Simon & Schuster pocket books.” So I met with him and he said, “The short stories are wonderful but short stories don’t sell as well as a novel; why don’t you write a novel?”
And I said to my wife, “He wants me to write a novel. I’ve only [done] the short stuff for one year, I don’t have enough words.” And she said, “You have feelings.” So I sat down and wrote Enter Laughing, my first semi-autobiographic novel.
AVC: There’s something really thrilling about making people laugh, isn’t there?
CR: It’s instant gratification. When you write a book you have to wait months, years for somebody to write about it, to interview you about it, to be sold.
AVC: And how do you feel when you make somebody laugh?
CR: Oh, it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s like when you’re handing somebody a good meal or something and they say thank you. It’s food for the soul.
AVC: In terms of all the different things that you’ve been writing about, do you think there is some common thread or theme?
CR: Well, it has to have humor in it or I don’t bother with it. I think I have to make you at least smile or pique somebody’s interest.
AVC: A lot of your themes are about family, right?
CR: Yes, mostly family and friends and my work. You’d only write what you know and what you know is what you do and the people you know. So you’d write about them or the people you have met casually. It’s part of your life.
AVC: You seem to have these very warm relationships with people and for the industry.
CR: Most people. Well, I certainly have warm relationships with people, but you choose the people you have those relationships with. There are some people I don’t bother with.
AVC: How do you find the passion all the time to create more and more and more?
CR: What else is there to do? You know, I used to be able to play tennis, but this is more lasting and doesn’t hurt your muscles as much. What I do for my muscles is I walk around the block. That’s about it.
AVC: Has that always been the case for you? Have you always felt like you needed to be creating things, keeping busy?
CR: Oh yes. My father worked in the house—he was a watchmaker and an inventor and I saw him working every day and the work ethic, I got from him. He worked and he never complained about it.
AVC: You’re still working at the same desk as the one you sat at when you wrote the Van Dyke Show…
CR: I have the same view.
AVC: Do you write at a typewriter or a computer? I’m guessing computer at this point.
CR: Computer, yeah. I have a typewriter but it’s stuck. I have it upstairs. But I’m not kidding, the keys won’t move. The keys are all welded together.
AVC: It seems like whenever you have an idea, you just do it, without giving it a second thought.
CR: Yeah. And the more impossible it is, [the better]. Give yourself an impossible task and solve it—then you’ve got a really good story.
AVC: A lot of artists, beyond a certain point, often stop creating new works. A lot of musicians, they’d go on tour and just repeat their old songs. But you’ve never stopped creating… do you know why?
CR: I don’t know. I only please myself. I figure I’m just one of many people. I’m not that different from anybody else and I don’t have great language, highfalutin language—I’m very ordinary. So I figure if I write about myself, other people with similar feelings and experiences would go, “Oh, that’s me.” We always like to find ourselves in books or at least dream that we can be heroes like D’Artangan or the Count Of Monte Cristo and live vicariously by thinking about those people. Zorro, how I loved him as a kid!
AVC: What did you enjoy most in your showbiz career?
CR: Writing. And for a lot of years I’ve emcee’d a lot of events.
The Dick Van Dyke Show was my labor of love. When asked the best thing I ever did—that was it. I wrote it originally for myself. I wrote 13 episodes. When I wrote the first episode someone picked in up to make a pilot and I said, “If I’m going to have a pilot, I better have a bible for other writers to write.” So I wrote 13 episodes in about four to five weeks. I did the pilot; it wasn’t very good. It didn’t sell. I put it aside and started doing movies.
Then Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas—who had a thing called T And L Productions—had read it. My agent was so bothered that he had these 13 pieces of gold on his desk—he knew they would sell—and so Sheldon Leonard called me and said he loved the scripts. So I said, “Sheldon, I don’t want to fail twice with the same material.” He said: “You won’t fail, we’ll get a better actor to play you.” And he suggested Dick Van Dyke. And the rest is… in my [upcoming] book.
AVC: So, having done all these things in your life, do you feel fulfilled?
CR: I think so. If I leave right now, I’m fine. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do. I have three children, I have grandchildren, I have books, I did movies, I’ve directed movies, I’ve done almost everything I’ve wanted to do. There wasn’t anything more I want to do—I just want to finish the thing I’m doing now and hopefully, another idea will pop. Maybe go even further—as Mel said, I can’t stop remembering.
AVC: When people read your books or watch your movies, what do you hope to leave them with?
CR: A smile. At least a smile. And maybe a chuckle. And a sigh.